This article was published in Hamsafar, the PIA magazine, in November – December 2001. I would now like to correct my proposition that according to Iqbal, a human being “is not complete without both the good and the evil”, or that as humans, “we have both the attributes of the Satan and God within ourselves.” My subsequent research has convinced me that Iqbal believed human being to be naturally good, and not a mix of good and evil (see ‘The Philosophy of Iqbal in nine points‘).
“For centuries Eastern heart and intellect have been absorbed in the question: Does God exist?” Iqbal wrote in his private notebook in 1910. “I propose to raise a new question: Does man exist?” He died twenty-eight years later, on 21 April 1938. Had he found the answer by then? For this, we have to look into Iqbal’s life and thought.
The city of Sialkot was a town in the process of great changes when Iqbal was born there on 9 November 1877. As a young child, Iqbal saw the small town transformed into a prosperous city under the administration of the British Raj. Families rose to prosperity and amassed fortunes through their hard work and intelligence. Iqbal’s own father was a Sufi who had little thought for the worldly success, but both his mother and his elder brother, were practical people grounded in the reality of the world. The conflict was reflected in Iqbal’s own thought, and he perhaps worked out a sort of resolution when years later he interpreted Islam as a religion that asks its followers to be successful in both the worlds. In one of his major works, he pays tribute to the Holy Prophet as a man who opened the doors of the world with the key of religion.”
Iqbal was an outstanding student right from the start. His was the fastest mind among his schoolmates, and indeed he knew how to use it. Bright in the classroom, invincible in the examination hall, and ruthless in repartee, Iqbal seemed to be an incarnation of the proverbial exemplary pupil. In this background we can perhaps understand his disappointment when, after completing his masters in Philosophy with distinction, he was refused admission into the civil services and left with the considerably undesirable option of being a junior lecturer in the Oriental College, Lahore. His personal disappointments are reflected in his poems from that early period, such as ‘Tasweer-e-Dard’ (A Portrait of Grief). In such poems, although Iqbal speaks of political afflictions, yet the gloomy mood comes straight from his own heart. In 1905, finally, he managed to step out of India in pursuit of higher qualifications.
In the next three years, he obtained a bar at law from London, and a doctorate in Arabic from Germany. He also developed a lasting friendship with the Bombay socialite Atiya Faizi, and unsuccessfully sought the hand of a German lady Emma Wegenast (Iqbal’s first marriage, although still intact, wasn’t a happy one and had been forced upon him by his elders at a very young age). Iqbal would always describe his three years in Europe as the happiest moments of his life.
It was here, in March 1907, that he finally made the first major breakthrough into the labyrinth of his exquisite mind. He was unsuccessful, he ruthlessly concluded, not because he wasn’t intelligent enough, but rather because he was too intelligent. A powerful mind is a wonderful thing, but there is something else that must be in control of the mind. It is the will power, or the super ego, or as Iqbal later devised a term for it: khudi, or the Self – “the illuminated nucleus of one’s existence which is the source of all emotion, thought and intuition.” A powerful mind that wanders in every direction is like an epileptic hand that is unable to grasp even a pen and move it from the table. The Self, or the enlightened ego, must control the mind.
Iqbal realized that the purpose of all religions, especially Islam, was to integrate the faculties of the human existence into a complete whole. A human being is more than the sum of his or her five senses, and the rational faculty. A human being, he realized now, is a powerful will in control of his or her faculties. This is what the saints like Rumi had envisioned throughout history, great poets like Shakespeare had tried to present in their art, philosophers like Aristotle had tried to prove through logic, and glorious prophets of all ages had prophesied. If this was the definition of a man, then … does man exist? Or is he an ideal?
Iqbal returned to India in 1908, and spent the rest of his life in Lahore – with occasional traveling to other cities in the country, and two return visits to Europe in the early 1930’s. After unsuccessful attempts at establishing himself as a lawyer, he finally accepted his destiny: to be a poet, and a preacher of the Self. Things are defined by their purpose, Aristotle had established more than two thousand years ago. A chair had four legs, but that is not its complete definition. It must also be something on which you can sit. If something has four legs, but doesn’t serve as a seat then it can’t be chair even if it looks like one. Similarly, Iqbal argued, the human being can be defined by the purpose they serve in the plan of God. The world of nature is incomplete, Iqbal concluded.
To him, that was the greatest proof of the existence of man. The world of nature must be improved upon. It has soil, but someone must use it to make urns. It has iron, but someone must show his skill by turning it into steel. To Iqbal, the world of nature appeared like an unfinished product awaiting a skillful hand to give it the finishing touch. To him, this seemed to be the purpose of God in making the world: that someone should appear and create worlds that lie unseen in the potential of things. Who will do it? Only a human being has the power to do so.
Just like Aristotle, Iqbal also liked to define things by their purpose. To him, man was defined by the power of his creation. “Revealed it is through its power of conquest; concealed in a body of man though Life may be,” he says in one of his Urdu poems. At the same time, Iqbal became obsessed with the beauty of nature. Not for what it was, but for what it could be in the hands of a master craftsman: “Think not that the job of the wine seller is finished when the wine is gone; a thousand cups undrunk are there in the veins of the vine tree.”
In 1911, he recited his now famous poem Shikwah (The Complaint), to an astonished audience: the poem was a dialogue with God, questioning him on the downfall of the Muslim civilization.
Three years later, he brought out a longer poem in Persian, titled Asrar-e-Khudi, or The Secrets of the Self. There was an aggressive reaction from the conservative sections of the Muslim society in India, who saw his views as a distortion of Islam. However, the antagonism subsided with time, especially as the younger generation, who found more appeal in his uplifting poetry, grew up to dominate the scene. By the time he toured India to deliver his famous six lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, in the late 1920’s, he was the most famous celebrated literary figure of the British Raj besides the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1930, he was called upon to preside over the annual session of the Muslim League in Allahabad, where he delivered his famous presidential address pleading for an alliance of the Muslim provinces in the North-West of India. The concept of Pakistan is generally believed to have germinated from this idea, and hence Iqbal is acclaimed as the ideological father of Pakistan. An ideal state, according to Iqbal, has to be a spiritual democracy where minority religions are not only tolerated, but accepted in the framework of the state.
The last years of Iqbal were preoccupied mainly with two issues. The first was the constitutional future of India, and Iqbal approached this question mainly from the Muslim perspective. The second issue was the significance of evil in the life of a human being, and this he approached mainly from the Romantic perspective.
One of the most powerful characters he drew in his later poems was that of Satan. Satan, as portrayed by Iqbal, is the master of provocation without whom the universe would be incomplete. True, Satan lays the trap. But it is equally true that without provocation from him, human beings would have never woken up to their higher consciousness. Satan persuaded Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge, and hence descend upon a world that would offer them an opportunity to create things according to their will.
Iqbal found an educative value in evil. A man, according to Iqbal, is not complete without both the good and the evil. If you don’t have evil within you, then what will you fight against? Just as Adam was tempted and suffered the fall, only to elevate again to the ranks of the chosen ones, so must every man and woman undergo this cycle in their own individual lives.
Obviously, Iqbal was thinking of his life-long battle with his mind: just like the devil, Iqbal’s mind had provoked him to taste the fruit of knowledge, waking him to greater dreams and opportunities. But there, you must say farewell to your mind and start listening to your inner voice. In Iqbal’s definition of man, the mind represents Satan (with its own crucial purpose in the scheme of things), while the ego represents God. As man, we have both the attributes of the Satan and God within ourselves. The human being can create many things. But the main purpose of creation is to create yourself: as a human being you have been given the unique opportunity to make yourself whatever you want to be!
“What is the end of my ever renewing adventures? If I am the absolute purpose of creation, then what is it that lies beyond me?” Iqbal wrote in his last Urdu poem, just a few days before his death. He died two years before the famous Lahore Resolution, where the Muslim League announced the creation of Pakistan as its sole aim. Pakistan itself came into being in August 1947, and Iqbal was posthumously elevated to the status of its ideological founder. In doing so, however, the state of Pakistan honored itself more than it honored Iqbal. For the message of Iqbal is not limited to the citizens of Pakistan or the followers of Islam. He spent a lifetime trying to define human being, and the questions he raised as well the answers he sought are relevant to all men and women who see it as their purpose in life to find a purpose in life.